Achieving a Dream

On February 21, 2019, the Iowa City zoning commission meeting was packed with people, lining the walls and filling all of the available seats. There were two items on the agenda for the members of the commission to discuss that night; the most significant being the rezoning of the Forest View mobile home park. The majority of people in the room were residents of Forest View and the surrounding neighborhoods, and had come tonight to speak about the project and the effect that it would have on their community.

To begin the meeting, the proposed development was described, and all of the new changes implemented in newer designs were explained. The plan is to create a commercial center on the middle to eastern side of the property, where the mobile homes currently are, and is set to include a gas station, restaurants, and possibly a hotel. The mobile homes will be replaced with manufactured homes, and the residential area will be relocated to the far west side of the property. The neighborhood side of Forest View will have community recreational areas and senior housing as well.

But what makes this development so impactful to the residents, and so necessary to get underway, is its plan for affordable long term housing. The manufactured homes will have a low monthly rent that if the residents pay for 15 years, will eventually transfer into ownership of their homes. For many, this would be their first chance to become homeowners, as well as to own a permanent home within a community that is central to the way they live their lives. Forest View residents spoke about how their strong community of neighbors was why they chose to live in the mobile home park in the first place; and it’s the reason now that they remain invested in this development, even after three years of uncertainty.

What struck me the most, after hearing the long, dry explanation from both the commission members and the developers at the beginning of the meeting, was how different “three years” sounded coming from them than it did when it came from the residents of Forest View. The first person to approach the stand to speak was a resident of the neighborhood for over 40 years. She described the excitement she remembers feelings when the developers first came to her and her neighbors. She had never owned a home before, and this was an unbelievable opportunity for her to do so and still be within the community that she loved. But, she went on, one year turned into two. Then three. Now, with no end in sight to the delays and the reconsiderations that plague the development plans, she, along with the countless other neighbors she’s lived next to for years, is having her mobile home fall apart around her from old age.

More and more residents came up and echoed her concerns. Many spoke about how long the development was taking to be set into motion, and how important it was that the zoning commission make concrete decisions to finalize its construction. But residents also spoke with some insight to why it had been taking so long to get underway; the development needed to be something that everyone involved could be proud of.

When it came to this, there was a different definition for everyone there. A particular example would be the proposed gas station, which would be right on the road leading into Forest View. One commission member was hung up on how necessary the creation of a gas station would be, to which a few women from the neighborhood adjacent to the development eagerly nodded. The representative for the developer, Black Bird Investments, explained that the gas station would bring in a steady stream of revenue, offsetting the low monthly rent paid by those living in affordable housing. The only way that this rent would remain affordable, he explained, is if the gas station is there. One of these women from the neighborhood got up later to speak. She said that she didn’t want to be able to throw a rock out her bedroom window and hit a gas pump, therefore, the gas station should still be reconsidered.  

This was just one of the points of contention which made it easier to understand, as the meeting went on, why this has taken process has taken so long. But the sentiment echoed by everyone, residents of Forest View and of elsewhere, was that the reason they came to these meetings was because they cared about the development. Despite all of the disagreements on the details, this project is still something that people are invested in, and want to see become a reality. One Forest View resident said that this project was a chance at achieving a dream, for him and his children, that he’s worked towards for 30 years. He offered up any and all of his services to the developers. “Whatever you need me to do, whenever you need me, I’ll do it,” he laughed. There was a lot of laughter in the room that night, mostly coming from empathetic neighbors seeing each other struggle to articulate the frustration that they’ve all felt for so long. There were tears too, for the same reason.

It is unclear whether or not the personal testimonials from the Forest View community will actually speed up the approval of the development or not. But what the night did show, as one concerned citizen put it, is that residents of Forest View are incredible advocates for themselves. As long as this development takes to be approved, they will be there, speaking up and collaborating as a community, in order to make their American dream into a reality.